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Issue 83 - Martin Martin's Islands

Scotland Magazine Issue 83
October 2015


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Martin Martin's Islands

In the first of a two-part series, John Hannavy follows in the footsteps of Scotland's first and most original travel writer

The book which would inspire James Boswell and Samuel Johnson to visit some of Scotland’s Western Isles in 1773 had been published 70 years earlier. Its author, Martin Martin, was a native of Duntulm on the northern tip of Skye, and while his account was not a travelogue in the sense we understand today, it was one of the earliest published accounts of the life and landscape of what were then some of the most remote parts of the country. One of its enduring charms is Martin’s archaic language, which chimes so well with the stories about which he was recounting.

He was writing at what was, with hindsight, a pivotal time in Scotland’s history. The Union of the Crowns had happened just a century earlier; the Acts of Union which would bring about a single British Parliament were still four years in the future. The Jacobite rebellions were still 12 and 42 years in the future, but disenchantment – and a sense of disenfranchisement – amongst those living in the more remote parts of Scotland was already manifest.

In the days long before regular and reliable shipping services to the islands, the Outer Hebrides were largely unknown to the people of the rest of Britain, and the Inner Hebrides only marginally better known. For those islanders, Edinburgh was sufficiently far away that few would ever make the journey. London was further away than the capitals of several Scandanavian countries. Martin – whose full name in Gaelic was Màrtainn MacGille Mhàrtainn – was born on Skye some time in the late 1650s, and studied at Edinburgh University, from where he graduated with an MA in 1681. Travel across Scotland’s often difficult Highland terrain would already have been familiar to him as he made his way to and from university, but even given his experience, the scale of his undertaking was immense. His first journey had been to the remote island of St Kilda – his account of which had been published in 1698 – and for this second major work, he started his description on the island of Lewis. Interestingly, he described the whole island as Lewis – including the southern part which we know today as Harris.

The book, A Description of the Western Islands of Scotland, was published in London in 1703 by Andrew Bell, whose address is picturesquely given as ‘at the Cross-Keys and Bible, in Cornhill, near Stocks-Market.’

There is no record of exactly when Martin journeyed to the islands – although the closing years of the 17th Century are likely – nor is it clear just how many of the islands he actually visited personally, or for which of them he relied on descriptions supplied by others. Certainly, some accounts contain much more well-observed detail than others, and it is, perhaps, not unreasonable to assume that these were researched by Martin himself.

Interestingly, despite the expected limitations of its title, the book also contains detailed accounts of life in the Orkney and Shetland Islands to the north of the Scottish mainland, and yet, surprisingly, Lismore at the mouth of Loch Linnhe is absent.

A Description of the Western Islands of Scotland opened with an eloquent dedication ‘To His Royal Highness Prince George of Denmark, Lord High Admiral of England, and Ireland, and of all Her Majesties Plantations, and Generalissimo of all Her Majesties Forces’, and an explanation of the dedication which read, ‘May it please Your Royal Highness, amongst the numeroud croud of Congratulating Addressers, the Islanders described in the following Sheets presume to approach your Royal Person; they can now without suspicion of Infidelity to the Queen of England, pay their Duty to a Danish Prince to whose Predecessors all of them belonged. They can boast that they are honoured with the Sepulchres of Eight Kings of Norway, who at this day, with forty eight Kings of Scotland, and four of Ireland, lie Entomb’d in the Island of Iona; a Place Fam,’d then for some peculiar Sanctity. They presume that it is owing to their great distance from the Imperial Seat, rather than their want of Native Worth, that their Islands have been so little regarded, which by Improvement might render a considerable accession of Strength and Riches to the Crown, as appears by a Scheme annexed to the following Treatise. They have suffered hitherto under a want of a powerful and effectionate Patron, Providence seems to have given them a natural claim to Your Royal Highness; and tho’ it is almost presumption for so Sinful a Nation to hope for so great a Blessing, they do humbly join with their Prayers to God, that the Protection which they hope for from two Princes of so much Native Worth and Goodness, might be continu’d in your Royal Posterity to all Generations.’

The ‘Queen of England’ was Queen Anne, Queen of Great Britain since 1702, but many Scots who had been opposed to the Union of the Crowns referred to her thus.

Martin started his account of the Western Isles on the island of Lewis, and his style was descriptive and heavily detailed. In addition to descriptions of places, he described the activities undertaken by the locals, the hardships they endured, and the few successes which they enjoyed.

‘The Natives are very industrious, and undergo a great fatigue by digging the Ground with Spades, and in most places they turn the Ground so digged upside down, and cover it with Sea-war [seaweed]; and in this manner there are about 500 People employ’d daily for some months.’

After the initial turning of the soil with spades, ‘They have little Harrows with wooden teeth in the first and second rows, which breaks the Ground, and in the third row they have rough Heath, which smoothes it: this light Harrow is drawn by a Man having a strong rope of Horse-hair across his breast.’

They produced so much corn, apparently, that it ‘disposed the Natives to brew several sorts of Liquors, as common Usquebaugh, another called Trestarig, three times distilled, which is strong and hot; a third sort is four times distilled, and this by the Natives is call’d Usquebaugh-baul, which at first taste affects all the Members of the Body: two spoonfuls of this last Liquor is sufficient Dose; and if any Man exceed this, it would presently stop his breath, and endvanger his Life.’ Clearly not for the faint-hearted then!

Of the fishing around the island he noted that ‘Cod and Ling are of a very large size, and very plentiful near Loch-Carlvay; but the Whales very much interrupt the Fishing in this place. There is one sort of Whale remarkable for its Greatness, which the Fishermen distinguish from all others by the Name of the Gallan-Whale; because they never see it but at the Promontary of that Name: I was told by the Natives, that about 15 years ago, this great Whale overturn’d a Fishers-boat, and devour’d three of the Crew; the fourth Man was sav’d by another Boat which happened to be near, and saw this accident.’

Any man lucky enough to be rescued would immediately reach for the Usquebaugh-baul, and risk at least two spoonfuls!

No account of Lewis, of course, would be complete without a description of Callanish, described by Martin as Classerniss, but in addition to an account of its appearance, he added, ‘I enquir’d of the Inhabitants what Tradition they had from their Ancestors concerning these Stones? And they told me, it was a place appointed for Worship in the time of Heathenism, and that the Chief Druid or Priest stood near the big stone in the center, from whence he addressed himself to the People that surrounded him.’

The people of Lewis, despite their hard lifestyle ‘are well proportion’d, free from any bodily imperfections, and of a good Stature; the colour of their Hair is commonly a light-brown, or red, but few of them are black. They are a healthful and strong-bodied People, several arrive to a great Age; Mr. Daniel Morison, late Minister of Barvas, one of my Acquaintance, died lately in his 86th year.’

Barvas – Barabhas in Gaelic – is a crofting community on the west coast of Lewis, ten miles north west of Stornoway.

As part of his description of the island of Great Bernera off the west coast of Lewis near Callanish, he recalled that ‘Alexander Mack-Lenan, who lives in Bernera Major, told me, that some years ago, a very extraordinary Ebb happen’d there, exceeding any that had been seen before or since; it happen’d about the Vernal Equinox, the Sea retir’d so far as to discover a Stone-wall, the length of it being about 40 yards, and in some parts about 5, 6 or 7 foot high; they suppose much more of it to be under Water: it lyes opposite to the west side of Lewis to which it adjoins. He says that it is regularly built and without all doubt the effect of Human Industry; the Natives had no Tradition about this piece of Work, so that I can form no other Conjecture about it, but that it has probably been erected for a defence against the Sea, or for the use of Fisher-men, but came in time to be overflow’d.’

The extensive remains of a late Iron Age village from the 6th or 7th Centuries AD were revealed on the beach near Bostadh on the north-west tip of Bernera facing the west coast of Lewis. Might this have been the same location revealed to Maclennan 260 years ago?

We will pick up his account next time, with the focus on his native Skye.